Longtime Tennessee domestic violence leader is out following critical federal investigation

By: and - December 14, 2022 4:05 am
After more than three decades, Kathy Walsh is out as leader of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. Her exit follows a federal investigation. (Photo: Tennessee Legislature)

After more than three decades, Kathy Walsh is out as leader of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. Her exit follows a federal investigation. (Photo: Tennessee Legislature)

This story was jointly reported by WPLN News and the Tennessee Lookout.

The longtime leader of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence has left the organization. The change comes less than a week after WPLN News and the Tennessee Lookout reported on federal findings of whistleblower retaliation at the nonprofit.

Kathy Walsh was executive director of the Coalition for more than three decades, where she helped build its reputation as the leading voice for domestic and sexual violence victims in the state. As a registered lobbyist, she has also helped shape many pieces of legislation.

But a report by investigators from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, finalized in September, concluded that Walsh was involved in forcing out an employee who blew the whistle on the potential misuse of federal grant funds in 2019. 

The report also cited three unidentified former employees who “expressed similar concerns about Walsh’s mismanagement of Coalition staff and reported retaliatory actions toward staff who had questioned Walsh’s directives,” “unhealthy communication patterns,” and that “Walsh was known to be unreceptive toward hearing a ‘critique’ from anyone.”

Sharon Wolfe, chair of the Coalition’s board of directors, declined to say whether Walsh resigned or was fired, but confirmed her last day on the job was Monday.

The Executive Board is working with Coalition managers and employees to ensure a smooth transition in management and with our program partners,” she said in a written statement. “Please know that we are committed to ensuring that the Coalition continues to be a support for the community and those we serve.”

More: Investigation finds Tennessee domestic violence nonprofit retaliated against whistleblower employee 

The report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General detailed Walsh’s role in committing an “unlawful act of reprisal” against former employee Veronica Quinonez, who repeatedly raised concerns about spending time on duties outside the guidelines of a prestigious violence prevention grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that funded her position. 

Some weeks, Quinonez said she spent up to 30% of her time handling sensitive calls from abuse survivors and tracking down resources to aid them, the report said.

Quinonez told investigators she was asked to keep two separate timesheets, one reflecting the work she actually did, and one that showed what she was supposed to be doing under the terms of the $2 million grant.

Investigators concluded that Quinonez was reprimanded for raising concerns. She was ultimately served with a severance letter an hour after asking how to file a grievance against Walsh with the Coalition’s board. 

Both Walsh and the board contested the findings in earlier statements shared with WPLN News and the Lookout.

“We are aware of the allegations, but dispute any current conclusions and findings, and intend to fully rebut the same when we have the opportunity,” their statement said.

The report echoed findings about the Coalition detailed in a pair of state audits released in 2017. 

One report by the Tennessee comptroller found Coalition employees were asked to falsify time sheets and questioned more than $515,000 in accounting procedures.  

An audit by the state’s Office of Criminal Justice Programs flagged complaints of a toxic, or even abusive workplace, with little oversight by the nonprofit’s board of directors. Current and former employees described the leadership and environment at the Coalition as “tyrannical,” “abusive,” “instilling fear,” “manipulative” and a “fear of Kathy [Walsh],” according to the audit — characterizations that Walsh and the board disputed.

Coalition leaders said they took corrective action steps following the 2017 audits.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.

Natasha Senjanovic
Natasha Senjanovic

Natasha Senjanovic is an award-winning freelance reporter, producer and editor who specializes in covering gender-based violence.